08/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tougher Tests Just the First Step to Improving Chicago Schools

The release of the latest state test scores for Chicago Public Schools show another year of modest gains. Good news, although as Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins noted, "Small gains are never enough."

What's more interesting is the news surrounding the scores. For one, Mayor Daley now says the state needs tougher tests. Those remarks come just days after the release of a report that says school reform is a big failure and the test score gains of recent years nothing but smoke and mirrors because of changes made to the tests in 2006. Catalyst wrote about this three years ago, pointing out the hyperbole. Besides rehashing old news, the report also fails to acknowledge the views of respected researchers who have said that not all the gains are due to easier tests.

Daley's not the first to say that the ISAT is too easy. Recently, the group Advance Illinois, co-chaired by mayoral brother Bill Daley and former Gov. Jim Edgar, made the same point. The group issued a comprehensive report to make a strong case for higher standards, noting that students throughout Illinois -- not just those in Chicago -- are not getting the rigorous academics they need. One telling statistic: Only 1 in 4 Illinois high school students will graduate ready for college or the workplace. The report ought to be required reading for every politician and policymaker in Illinois.

While the Advance Illinois report makes a well-reasoned argument for tougher standards, among other changes, it's gotten less attention in the media than the Civic Committee report blasting Chicago's public schools. That's unfortunate, given the quality of Advance Illinois' work, compared to the finger-pointing of the Civic Committee report.

It's easy to write a report saying CPS is a failure, given that far too many students still drop out, fail tests and graduate completely unprepared for college. It's easy to blame "special interests" and teachers for the problem, then turn around and use the resulting outrage to argue that charters are the silver bullet.

Easy, yes. But such arguments don't accomplish much. In fact, they do nothing except raise the hackles of educators who are working hard to help students learn, and do little to advance the cause of charters, since anyone who knows anything about education knows that structure alone is not the answer. Transform every school overnight into a charter, with non-union teachers and no rules except to raise performance, and you'll still have to solve the equation: How to educate students, especially students who often face troubled home lives and come to school woefully unprepared to learn.

As the Advance Illinois report rightly points out, tougher standards are needed -- but that's only a first step. Schools and teachers -- especially teachers in struggling urban schools -- need resources to get kids to meet higher standards. Parents must be involved, and principals and teachers need outreach training to bring in parents who aren't engaged in their child's education. And so on.

In fact, the Advance Illinois report ought to be required reading not just for politicians and policymakers, but citizens throughout Illinois.